Why Liz Cheney Had to Go

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S1: When I try to pin down the moment things started to change for Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, I think about this press conference she was at back in February.

S2: Hi, everyone. Thanks very much for being here today.

S1: Just to set the scene here, Cheney speaking in her role as chair of the House GOP conference. She is there to trash talk Joe Biden’s stimulus plan. She does that. Then she turns things over to her colleagues. The last person to speak is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

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S3: The American public deserve better, and that’s exactly what Republicans will propose. That is

S1: question. The Conservative Political Action Conference was scheduled to kick off the next day. President Trump was scheduled to speak there even after the January 6th riot, even after he got impeached again. So a reporter asks, should Trump really be giving this speech? McCarthy’s blunt, yes, he should. Then that reporter asks Cheney what she thinks. That’s up to see fact. I’ve been clear my views about President Trump. And while the minority leader closes his eyes in what seems like resignation, Cheney says how she feels the former president should have no role in the future of the Republican Party. And that I know. Since her very public break with Trump, Cheney has faced not one but two threats to her GOP leadership. She survived the first vote, the second one scheduled for this week. But let’s just say, if Cheney is looking to keep this job, she should be a little worried. I called up Eliana Johnson from over the Washington Free Beacon to figure out why the winds seem to have shifted for Cheney.

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S4: I think what’s changed is something that’s a little more tactical than principled in that the Kevin McCarthy of the world and the Mitch McConnell’s of the world think the Trump out of office will over time look, say, over the next five years, his influence will that they think it’s already diminished and that it will continue to diminish for Cheney. I think the January six riot was a defining moment and she viewed that as a real threat to democracy, which I don’t disagree with there at all about that. But she believes that Trump, sitting on a beach chair at Mar a Lago is as much of a threat to the republic as he was when he was tapping out tweets from the Oval Office.

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S1: Back in the winter at that press conference, Liz Cheney’s straightforward assessment of the former president resonated with some Republicans, even if it left her out on a limb with party leadership. In the months since, even her supporters have gradually reassessed.

S4: Cheney was one of 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment in the second impeachment trial. And even lawmakers who share her view on that and voted for impeachment have turned against her because they are in contested races coming up and they don’t want to be talking about their impeachment vote anymore.

S1: Elliana is deeply sourced in Republican circles. The Free Beacon, where she’s editor in chief, is a conservative publication. Elliana used to work at the Bill O’Reilly show over at Fox. She says now if she calls up folks on Capitol Hill, they say it seems like Cheney’s given up.

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S4: She’s not working the conference right now to keep her job. Now, that may be because she knows she’s going to lose, but I will say that in the period between January six and today, there were a lot of people who were positively disposed to her, agree with her, and at times reached out to her to ask how they could help and didn’t get much of a response. Hmm.

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S1: So if she loses this position in leadership, in some ways you’re saying that’s on her.

S4: Cheney needed to put herself in a position where her allies would defend her when she’s taking an unpopular position. And and I don’t think she’s put herself in that spot.

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S1: Today on the show, the Republican case against Liz Cheney and what it says about where the party is headed from here. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Representative Cheney has had a complicated relationship with other Republicans for a while now, going back to last summer, her more right wing colleagues, people like Jim Jordan, Matt Gates, were criticizing her for not being a team player. But what started as resistance from members on the fringe has grown.

S4: Cheney was never shy about speaking up about her disagreements with Trump. And I think part of the animosity between her and other members is due to her views on foreign policy. She she favors a more muscular and interventionist foreign policy than the former President Trump and a lot of other members. But part of it also was that she aired her disagreements with Trump all through the Trump administration. And Cheney was never a Trump toady, yet she held her leadership position through this. So what’s changed between the past four years and now?

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S1: Yeah, and then not even the past four years, like the past four months. Back in February, Cheney faced a battle over her chairmanship and she managed to hang on to her seat. But what was different then from now?

S4: A couple of things. The first is I think McCarthy came under a lot of pressure from Cheney allies who believe she’s a really important voice in the Republican Party on foreign policy.

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S1: Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, I should just say that exactly.

S4: Sorry. And so he came under a lot of pressure from those who share Cheney’s view in a muscular foreign policy to keep her in leadership because they believe she’s an important voice. And I think that though it was never stated explicitly, the assumption was that if McCarthy saved her skin, she would mute her criticisms of Trump and pivot in a way that somebody like Mitch McConnell has. You remember McConnell, when he voted to certify the election in January, said it was the most important vote he had ever taken in a political career. He has since traded insults with Trump, who has described him in terms not suitable for a family podcast. But it’s very clear to people where McConnell stands on this and that there’s no love lost between Trump and McConnell. Yet when McConnell is asked a question about Trump, he doesn’t take the bait. And I think that the incorrect assumption was that if Cheney’s allies, who share her views on all of this but want to talk about the Democrats now that she would follow in McConnell’s footsteps.

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S1: So how is Cheney taking the bait? I mean, she wrote an op ed for The Washington Post is what else?

S4: There was a tremendous amount of frustration at the Republican conference retreat down in Florida when the majority of the headlines out of that conference retreat were about Cheney slamming Trump. And suffice it to say, look, this is politics. Those are not the headlines that Republicans want right now. They want their focus to be on the Biden administration. And I think that they were looking to her particularly she’s the source of messaging for the conference to try to pivot and to say, look, we’re not looking toward the past, we’re looking to the future. And here are the things the Biden administration is doing that we’re going to run against.

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S1: Now, many House Republicans are looking to replace Representative Cheney in leadership with Elise Stefanik, a representative from New York who originally wasn’t on the Trump train either.

S4: Elise Stefanik is 36 years old at the time when she was elected to Congress six years ago. She was 30. She was the youngest woman ever elected. She comes from an upstate rural New York district that was in Democratic hands for two decades and that she flipped. And Stefanik, I think, has. Been able to straddle better than Cheney, the establishment world of Republicans and the Trump world, in that he was in a contested primary in twenty fourteen and it was the support of. Top dollar Republican donors that helped propel her out of that primary, so she very much common, she worked in the George W. Bush administration. She was Paul Ryan’s debate coach when he was the vice presidential nominee. She’s very much comes from the establishment mold, but she’s migrated.

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S1: It’s interesting to hear you talk about her straddling this line between sort of establishment folks and the Trump wing. Is there really a line there anymore? Like my own my view of it is it seems like those establishment figures have simply aligned themselves with Trump.

S4: I think that’s a good point and largely true. Yes. So she’s someone who’s come from that establishment wing was propelled to out of her primary, made it to the general election, thanks to them. And it’s true. I think that wing is not openly hostile to Trump and is eager to move beyond him.

S1: Yeah, I see. This potential swap of Cheney for Stefanic is interesting because, of course, the Republican Party doesn’t have an official platform right now, I believe. And so we’re looking at these characters to try to understand what it means to be a Republican. And I think a few years ago, you would say Liz Cheney very much fit that mold, very conservative, hawkish, deep family ties to politics. And then you look at someone like Stefanic who came in, was quite liberal and has gotten some pushback from conservative groups, is basically being liberal. And they’re saying, you know, this isn’t really, you know, the Club for Growth types are saying that she’s not, quote unquote, conservative enough. But when you talk about what conservative enough is or what Republican enough is, I think it very much is Elise Stefanik, because she’s made this move to just apply herself more and more closely with Trump and whatever his beliefs seem to be and is willing to just keep going down that path.

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S4: I’m not sure I agree with that in that party’s out of power by nature squabble. And I don’t think there is any agreement on what it means to be a Republican. I think there are two important debates taking place. One is on economics and whether the GOP will continue to embrace free market economics. And the other is on foreign policy, whether whether the GOP will continue to be the party of hawks. And I don’t think we have answers to either of those questions. What I do think the party is united on, basically, is they they want to move beyond many of them. They want to move beyond Trump. The Trump years were exhausting. They were exhausting for conservatives and Republicans and lawmakers and donors. And I think there’s a lot of eagerness simply to to move beyond him and to have these more substantive debates.

S1: Interesting you say move beyond Trump because, I mean, Stefanic voted not to certify the vote in Pennsylvania, so it’s not quite moving beyond Trump. It’s not it’s not clean like that. I don’t think.

S4: I think that’s right. And I would say I think it’s Stefanic strategy. She did vote against the certification about has been never to say anything that’s obviously false, but to lend the trumpet’s the impression that she agrees with them without drifting into blatant falsehood territory and moving beyond might be the wrong word. But I think it’s just to minimize opposition, minimize that internal friction somewhat in the same way that Democrats are trying to minimize friction with progressives. And to the extent that there’s a way to like hit the mute button on those disagreements, that both parties are going to do it.

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S1: When we come back, what this fight over Liz Cheney’s position says about the future of the Republican Party. Back in February, the last time Representative Cheney was in the hot seat like this, she had the support of party leaders. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stood by her this time, not so much. Recently, he was caught on a hot mic telling a Fox News host, Cheney’s got real problems and I’ve had it with her.

S4: I think that McCarthy, who is a relatively amoral political figure, he’s focused on winning and he simply was fed up with her articulating a message that he and others don’t believe is going to lead to Republican victory in twenty twenty two. Look, to understand, McCarthy, you have got to understand that he’s only thinking about politics. He wants to become speaker and he wants Republicans to take back the House in twenty twenty two.

S1: It’s interesting you use this word that I think is so apt, which is you called him amoral and I think that’s spot on because this fight over Liz Cheney, to me, it’s really it’s a fight about tactics, which is, you know, what’s a winning message here? And it seems like the Republican Party is guessing that the winning tactic is to just double down. They kind of ignore what happened on January 6th, keep it pushing. But that is a fundamentally amoral strategy.

S4: I think that’s true.

S1: I mean, the question is whether it’s a winning or losing strategy and we don’t know that, right.

S4: I was going to say we don’t know like Liz Cheney could be right. I think that the disagreement is over two things. The first is how big of a threat is Trump out of power? And the second is what is the winning message for twenty twenty two? So there’s I think Liz Cheney thinks Trump is much more powerful out of power than does Kevin McCarthy, and she believes Trump is an electoral killer and that as a result, she needs to beat him over the head and stamp out his influence ahead of twenty, twenty two, because that’s bad for Republican politics. Whereas somebody like McCarthy says, I don’t want to keep talking about things that divide the party. I want to talk about the Biden administration.

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S1: Is there a case when it comes to Liz Cheney stance, too, that this is kind of a good way for her to make it rain in terms of campaign dollars because she puts herself out there as the person who’s speaking up against Trump and there are very few people like her who have an R next to their name. And so maybe that is part of her calculus here.

S4: It’s interesting, there’s been a lot of discussion about what is Cheney’s end game here, like what is she trying to do? Because in refusing to drop the Trump stuff, she’s giving up a position of power and. Power involves moral compromises, so I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I will say, like there for those for anti trumpeter’s, there are sort of two paths you can go. There’s the Mitch McConnell path, which is, you know, he stated his views and now he’s not he’s not answering questions about Trump any more. And then there’s like the Jeff Flake Bob Corker path. Those are both former senators who who is like strident anti Trump ism, I would say, killed their careers. And but I don’t think they fundamentally disagree on anything. And that being said, I happen to agree with Liz Cheney and everything she said. I, I part ways with her on on the tactics.

S1: There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about when it came to Liz Cheney, because I was listening to the Sunday shows from this past weekend and just the murmurs among Republicans about Liz Cheney. And to me, when I listen to it, the pushback on Liz Cheney, it reminded me so much of pushback on Elizabeth Warren from a few years back, like you had Chris Christie on ABC saying, you know, she wouldn’t stop talking essentially about January 6th and, you know, it’s going to be a drag. And it sounded so much like nevertheless, she persisted, like she just kept talking. And there’s this other similarity between Cheney and Elizabeth Warren, which is people often say Warren’s a bad politician, which we can agree or disagree about. But what’s interesting to me is that she staked out these positions that often seemed very outside of where her party was, and she was critical of the party itself. And she won some contests and she lost some, but she ended up pulling her party in a direction that it was not going before. She was part of that. And it made me wonder if that was Cheney’s play here to do something like that.

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S4: I think in her dreams, perhaps that’s her place to make a real stamp on the party by by pulling it in the anti Trump direction. But I think there is one important distinction, which is that I think it’s easy to pull your party, you know, as a Democrat, it’s easy to pull your party to to the left. And as a Republican, it’s easier to pull your party to the right if you’re a Republican trying to pull your party to the left or to the center like that, that’s that’s more challenging. We’re looking at intra conference dynamics. So within the party, that’s more challenging.

S1: Cheney’s already got a primary challenger for 20 22, right?

S4: She does. And I think the big question is how this will reverberate for her back home. And I think there are real doubts about whether she will come out of that primary after losing a leadership post. Yeah, she she, by the way, has expressed a lot of confidence that she’ll prevail. And and I hope she does. I think her message is perfectly fine for a rank and file member of the Republican Party. I think it’s less appropriate for somebody and party and party leadership. But I think I think Cheney is an important presence and an important voice in the party.

S1: Eliana Johnson, thank you so much for joining me.

S4: Thank you. Great to be with you.

S1: Eliana Johnson is the editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon. On Tuesday evening, ahead of the vote that could oust her from leadership, Representative Cheney walked onto the House floor and gave a speech, doubling down on her position. She said her continued focus on the election and the events of January six were part of a duty to defend the Constitution.

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S2: This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty. As Americans remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.

S1: And that’s the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett, Alaina Schwartz and Davis Land. Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery are our fearless leaders. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll get you back in this field tomorrow.